Does Teaching English Abroad Make You a Neocolonialist?

Paris 2011
Paris 2011

I read an article on my beloved MatadorNetwork last night that got me thinking about TEFL once more. It’s been nine months since I was a teacher, and I’m now back on the side of the student while on my MA course.

The piece is called “How to teach English abroad and not be a neocolonialist.” Loaded title. Let me start by saying that I have considered this at some length, throughout the times I was teaching English abroad and in the US. I  agree that neocolonialism is bad, and that many of the ways English is taught around the world are extremely problematic. I’ve even shown my students Patricia Ryan’s fantastic talk about the globalisation of English, and hope that English never becomes the wasteland that TOEFL seems to hope it would be.

I wrote about neocolonialism and my own place in the great English Machine in the first few weeks in Chile, in 2011:

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 13.20.55

In Chile, “neo-colonialist” sometimes seemed to become synonymous with “gringo” (which is not particularly offensive in Chilean Spanish, although it may be in other places). The idea that I could exist as an anglophone volunteer who tried her hardest to learn the local language and to avoid cultural imperialism like the plague to the best of my ability was ignored, because all that could be swept away with a single utterance of that term. Given my background, my ethnicity, and my native language, I could never be anything but a neo-colonialist in the minds of many, no matter how many rules I followed.

Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011
Tia Coleen, with my students on July 8th, 2011

In Korea, the situation is equally complex. Historical considerations of the USA and perhaps a far more developed “Cult of English” made some of the points in the article from yesterday much more apparent. But was it my fault that I was asked to keep an English-Only policy in the classroom by my employer? Is it the fault of the native speaking teacher that demand in Korea is high for them, based on expectations of what “good English” is or where it comes from? Can I help the fact that I was born into English, and not just any English…accents from the Front Range of Colorado tend to be highly-sought after even in the US (Let me put it this way: We basically sound like news anchors.)?

Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher, Halloween 2012
My required costume for a few days, Pirate Teacher, Halloween 2012

And yes, we had Halloween at my Korean Hagwon. I had no say in the matter. It was a corporate decision and we had to participate as part of our job. The kids liked it well enough, and we were careful to say that it was just one holiday that is not better or worse than any other. Some parents removed their children from classes that day, claiming that they should never get a day off from TOEFL. Now that’s oppressive.

I wanted to respond to the article, from my own perspective. I originally posted this as a comment, but as I explored the issues and my experiences, I found myself with nearly 800 words. Nobody’s got time for that in a comment. That’s why I’ve re-posted here, and why I used “you” throughout to refer to the author, Alyssa James.

To me, it appears that the piece is saying that most TEFL teachers *are* neocolonists. It appears to suggest that this is the default position. That inevitably most who teach abroad are in a “Teacher > students. English >any other language.” mentality, and not even aware that they are. I just do not see it that way at all. I do not believe that I was a neocolonialist while teaching abroad, either. At least not of my own volition.

We are living in a post-colonial/neocolonial world, and it is oppressive. I agree with that. But the teachers who move abroad and do all the things Alyssa James asserts are neocolonialist behaviour (feeling like an Other, acknowledging English as one possible part of success, being unable/unwilling/told not to learn the language of the students, keeping an English-Only policy in the classroom) are not operating in a vacuum. Any analysis of their behaviour must be informed by the knowledge that they didn’t choose to be native speakers any more than their students/colleagues chose their own native languages. Furthermore, I’ve been a language student many times. I know that the types of things described in the article are not limited to English alone, and I believe I have a well-informed idea of the most-effective teaching I’ve known as a student of French, Italian, Spanish, and Korean.

Please see my original comment below.

While I agree broadly with most of the piece, there are a couple things that you simply get wrong. (Obligatory personal background: Originally from the US. I taught English in the US (as a tutor), in Chilean Patagonia, and in South Korea. I wrote about these experiences here on MatadorNetwork  and for BridgeTEFL I’m currently on an MA course in Linguistics in the UK.)

First problem: Assuming that by ‘feeling like the Other’ teachers were referring only to their classroom experiences, and asserting that those feelings are not legitimate.

In Korea, there are about 22,000 foreign English Teachers. Roughly 0.04% of the population. By my definition, a minority, and a tiny one at that. It’s reasonable that foreign teacher might feel somewhat singled out or at least as though they don’t quite fit in in broader cultural, linguistic, racial, or other terms. The nature of being a native English teacher in a country where English is not the most-used language is to be in a minority population.

We could resolve this by assuming that the category of ‘The Other’ is fixed and can never include certain groups, which appears to be your analysis of the English teachers (essentially: You are not the Other, and you never can be because you were born into English). This is simply not true. It is possible that under certain circumstances, being a native English speaker could be detrimental in a specific culture or scenario.

You appear to assume that the people with privilege (like being born into English) can control their own position in the system, or that they are even able to be aware of it. Being born into English is a chance accident over which they have no control, any more than the students in their classes or their non-native-speaking colleagues could control not being born into it. It is fairly well established that an oppressive, unequal system can trap and constrain the Oppressor as much as the Oppressed.

Second Problem: Assuming that by speaking in only English in the classroom, the teacher is being inherently oppressive to their students. Firstly, most TEFL teachers have little control over the policies that are chosen and put into place by the schools in which they teach.

Their job may be at least partially contingent on maintaining English-only in the classroom. I find it a stretch to say that the teachers themselves are being neocolonialist, as opposed to the TEFL system of the school or more generally the system of English in the world that the teacher is merely one tiny person in. Those systems may be neocolonialist, but holding an English-only policy under some coercion is a by-product of that oppressive system and not produced by the TEFL teacher themselves.

Furthermore, not all classrooms are the same. Not all students are the same. Some classrooms need a mixture of English and more language(s). Some, especially higher-level courses where the goal is to hone English rather than begin it, need English-only as a matter of pushing students to learn to express themselves in complex ways without translation. With everything translated into the native language, or even with some translation, there is the constant possibility of an ‘out’ (that is, the ability to use a word from the native language without translating instead of finding a way to use the target language alone). Students eventually stop progressing.

This is not unique to English-teaching. French teachers do it. Italian teachers do it. Mandarin teachers do it. Arabic teachers do it. Basically any native speaker of any language does it when teaching that language, at a certain point. The goal is not to promote the hegenomy of a single language, but to approximate the pressure of an immersive environment. If the environment outside the classroom is not immersive and not pushing students to use the target language in their everyday lives, one possible way to approximate immersion is to use English-Only in the classroom.

Frankly, if we assume that TEFL teachers have ‘the antithesis of minority status’ because ‘what you do or don’t do in the classroom can affect your students’ life chances,’ it would be irresponsible not to prepare students for a situation in which they cannot use their native language, and they cannot translate. This is what the goal of learning a language is; to actually be able to use it in practice outside a classroom setting, ostensively with native speakers of that language.

Yours is a fine analysis from a particular perspective. However, it misses clear things that should inform why certain things happen in the world of TEFL and how the teachers within it behave. There are, of course, ways of teaching English that are neocolonial, but the blame for that should be placed more on the systems that produce the hegemony of English and the effects of this system on those within it, teachers included. Blame the system, not the teachers.

But the question remains open: Does teaching English abroad make you a neocolonialist?

I don’t think so. What do you think?  

18 thoughts on “Does Teaching English Abroad Make You a Neocolonialist?

  1. I absolutely do not think that teaching English abroad makes you a neocolonialist. As Alyssa James even points out in her article, “It’s a reality that English is being appropriated as one of the main languages used for global understanding.” Whether we like it or not, English has become accepted as one of the international methods of communication, and while her last point calls on English teachers to not “feel guilty” it seems like that is exactly what her article would cause them to do. Of course we did not earn the privilege of being born into an English speaking country, but as you mention we did not choose it either.
    It seems ridiculous that she views an “English only” policy as oppressive. At a certain level it is necessary to challenge yourself. I encountered an “Italian only” policy in my Italian classes in the US, and also in Italy—at neither point did I find it to be anything more than a necessary teaching tool. I also agree that it is perfectly acceptable to feel like “the Other” in a place where you are part of the minority (in terms of that country’s population). In fact, by suggesting that otherness may only define non-English speakers, (which I feel she does) isn’t she inherently perpetuating the hegemony of English? Her notion of “otherness” seems reminiscent of Edward Said’s concept of “orientalism,” in that she casts fixed definitions upon English teachers by what they are not.
    Anyway, I’ll stop short of launching into a theoretical tirade by saying that her article had some good points. Teach your students in a context they will appreciate, and avoid forcing a superiority complex regarding English upon them—great. However, purporting that somehow every individual who goes to teach English abroad is fundamentally neocolonialist goes too far.
    Thanks for sharing your comments—very interesting and thought provoking (as proved perhaps by my overly lengthy comment…).

    1. I occasionally wish English were not an international language, in part because everyone can understand me everywhere and I have to be super-resopnsible with my words all over the world. That’s not in itself a bad thing (it’s actually good!), but it would be nice to be able to just speak ‘in code’ sometimes.
      James may have been getting at the point that the whole idea of a ‘global language,’ especially one that pretty much came to be one out of an empire, is inherently colonialist/neocolonialist, and that the people who go into the TEFL system are exploiting this neocolonialism to their advantage. Fair enough, I suppose. We shouldn’t be insisting on English, as Patricia Ryan’s talk shows. But if it already is that way, and there are some factors to show that English is actually a key to some doors in the world, students should have the best chance at learning the language (through a combination of native-speaker and non-native teachers, with lots of different ways of learning, but most especially, immersion).

      Anyway, I don’t know if I just misinterpreted the whole point of her article. If she was trying to say that the default for TEFL teachers is neocolonialism, that’s false.

  2. English has become a de facto international language of business; TEFL should be seen more as a contributor to globalisation than “just” neocolonialism; a softer version of the cultural homogenisation associated with Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. For many of us, including northern Europeans, English was a foreign language to our ancestors/cultures but we learned to adapt/adopt…and thrived, even if our ancestral cultural practices were diluted in the process.

      1. Good point, Coleen. Philosophically, it’s all additive — we absorb and change (the qualities of “good” and “bad” merely a matter of perspective). Thanks again for your insightful post.

  3. Reblogged this on cornishkylie and commented:
    Really interesting thoughts here… ‘neocolonialism’ may not be a word in my day-to-day vocabulary but the discussions come up time and time again. It’s worth reading the article linked (which inspired this responsive piece) also, and taking ten minutes to watch the TED talks video clip.

  4. I could understand the tag neo-colonialist if you landed in Chile, rounded up the population and forced them to learn English. The writer of the article sounds like they are another apologist for white, English speaking people, embarrassed that they were born that way. English has always been known as the language of commerce and French the language of diplomacy. Keep teaching, you’re doing a great job. 🙂

    1. Actually, the author of the other article is Alyssa James, and she is not white nor apologising for white folks.

      I do not intend to give fuel to the fire for people who do not think that neocolonialism can ever happen, or that the system of TEFL in the world is not oppressive to all involved. Read her article for yourself and then judge.

      1. Let me apologise, at no stage in my use of the word ‘another’ was I referring to you. It’s like this, I have well over a hundred people I follow and every week I do a quick run through the blogs, leave a like here, and a little comment there. With writing and doing my own blogging there isn’t enough time to do a lot of in depth reading of articles. So, I made a quick observation on your page when I should have just left a like or skipped to the next one. Once again I apologise. I don’t see your blog in my list anymore so you need not worry that I may make any other comments on future posts.

      2. No worries! I just wondered if it was a real thing or if people imagine that there are many who apologise for being white or English-speaking. My money is on the latter, which is why I asked.

  5. Hi Coleen,

    Great write up. I’m glad to see the engagement with my piece around the web.

    There are a few things I’d like to address:

    – My piece is, in a way, meant to be inflammatory – but not outrageous. I used theoretical foundations to back up my arguments: Philippson, Ladson-Billings, Delpit, bell hooks, some undercurrents of Said… post-colonial theory and teaching equity academic papers. I have published an academic piece along the same lines, so these aren’t just pulled out of thin air. The concept is well-founded.

    – Admittedly, I probably could have gone more into WHY TEFL can be neocolonialism, but that would have been a long and highly academic piece, not necessarily suitable for Matador.

    – I understand what you mean about the system vs. the individual, but I respectfully disagree about ones lack of control in the matter. You can either choose not to be a part of a system that you recognize as oppressive, or work to change it – the foundation of any activist theory, e.g. feminism, queer theory, etc.

    – I agree that people cannot control their privilege and may not be aware of it. It’s exactly why I wrote this article. As much as I dislike the phrase, it’s a ‘check your privilege’ piece. Once you acknowledge your privilege, we return to my previous point: you choose not to participate, actively work against the system, or continue living your life of privilege. That’s what privilege is – the power to choose your place in a hegemonic system.

    – I know the teachers I mentioned weren’t only talking about their classroom experience of being the Other. But most of them talked about it outside the context of the history of the country we were in. I wrote about it here:

    – I, too, have been a language student. I know that X-language only policies are ubiquitous. However, we are generally not already inundated by these languages or the overall culture. American/British television, music, culture, and so on are known across the world. I had a student who was fluent in English (compared to classmates who could have a basic conversation) from listening to music and watching television shows. I don’t know anyone who has learned Mandarin from watching kung-fu movies… So, indeed, there is a difference in access and how permeated across the globe that is.

    Sorry I didn’t address everything, but these ones stood out most.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion here! 🙂

    1. Thank you for coming over to continue the conversation.

      The biggest criticism for the original article and this response is that you appear to paint the situation as very manichean. It seems that teaching is either fully neocolonial or activist teaching, either ‘checking your privilege’ or using purposefully it to perpetuate a system. This or that. No in between.

      I disagree. As with all complex issues, TEFL is not something that can be pinned down into diametrically opposed categories. It shouldn’t be framed as such. A great deal of activism and ‘fighting the system’ must necessarily be done within the confines of the very system that oppresses. The system is huge. One tiny fist hitting back is better than nothing, but the owner of that tiny fist still has the eat and sleep somewhere. Occasionally that eating an sleeping may be contingent on wearing a Halloween costume and making a Powerpoint about the history of a US holiday in a hagwon.

      If TEFL necessarily makes a person neocolonialist, then why wasn’t that the point of your original article? Just don’t teach abroad! Don’t teach English! Perhaps even Don’t Travel! TEFL may be inherently problematic, but surely the movement and international connections it can lead to are not. What is better, a person who actively engages with an oppressive system and struggles with their place within it, or someone who stays in their bubble and never is even aware of their privilege?

      More blame on the system, still. Those teaching abroad are likely some of the few most acquainted with it.

  6. Girl. Reading your piece made me want to rip out my hair. You look at the world through rose-colored lense. It seems you are attempting to assuage you own conscience by picking apart the Matador piece. You have privilege as an English speaker, you have privilege as a white person. You were in a position of power, just because people in your line of work made up .004% of then population doesn’t make you a minority. Trust. I think you need to go ahead and unpack that invisible knapsack.

    1. To someone like you, by virtue of being white I can never be anything but an oppressor with a capital O. That is not how I view the world, but you are welcome to continue in that view. This piece is very old, but still relevant…obviously.

      I reiterate: I no more choose to be a native English speaker than anyone chooses the accident of their birth. I am a teacher, but I would just as happily hold a Chinese-Only policy in my classroom if I had happened by random chance to be born into a family in Shanghai.

      Being an English teacher abroad does not make a person a neo-colonialist.

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